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Raffique Shah


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Gone to the dogs

By Raffique Shah
May 15, 2011

There was a time when every dog owner in Trinidad needed a "dog licence" to own or keep a dog. Back then, everyone I knew who kept dogs owned "pot hounds", also known as "common dogs" or "mongrels". My father, like everyone else in our village who kept dogs, would go to the police station or court (I was too young to know details), pay a dollar and get a licence.

He was obligated to secure that licence around the dog's neck and ensure that the dog did not roam the streets. If it did and it bit someone or was found roaming by the municipality's "dog catchers", he would have to pay a fine to retrieve "Rover", or whatever dog we owned. Sometime in the 1950s, or maybe early 1960s, some government decided to remove the "dog licence" law, and the bicycle licence law (yes, there was that, too) from the statute books.

Now, I know the law can be an ass at times. But in this instance, our colonial masters saw the need to regulate the ownership and control of the colony's dog population. Since there were few, if any, specially bred canines at the time, that law had little to do with so-called dangerous dogs. All dogs can be dangerous. Have you ever encountered a pack of pothounds chasing after you? I have, on many occasions. As recently as ten years ago while biking, I was a victim of a pothound attack, hitting one big fella broadside and falling at high speed, fracturing five ribs in the process.

I took my injuries as a man. I did not sue the dogs' owner (a farmer who came to my aid), and I worked hard to recover quickly from the worst injuries I had suffered in my 55 years (at the time). Still, I have seen Trinidad descend from a well-regulated dog-ownership regime into a canine mess, in which people own pit bulls and similar breeds as a show of might, and where the stray dogs population has skyrocketed to the point where noxious dog turds litter the country's roads, streets and even the yards of non-dog owners.

Indeed, if there is an odour by which one can identify a country, Trinidad's would be the stench of dog shit! Ah lie? It pollutes the air in city streets and country lanes. Dogs left free to roam, which is the norm across the country, find only the cleanest spots on roadways or in someone's premises to "offload" their crap. Perish the thought that the owners would clean up after them. This is Trinidad, not England or some other civilised country where loose dogs or strays are the exception. Here, they rule—dogs, and their delinquent owners who have less sense than their canines.

With the arrival of "breeds", we have encountered another kind of lawlessness—unimaginable irresponsibility. When I used to run as a form of exercise, on numerous occasions, I encountered jacka---- proudly escorting their monsters. The canines wore no muzzles and the leashes looked as fragile as kite twine. In such circumstances, instead of focusing on my pace or enjoying the "high" that distance runners do, I, and I imagine many others like me, would adopt the dog-battle mode. My stance was such that I was prepared to battle both dogs and owners.

Not everyone is like me. Mostly, people are afraid of dogs, a fear that exposes them to greater danger. It seems that dogs sense when people fear them, hence they become emboldened, more likely to attack. Other dogs, like pit bulls and Rottweilers, are deadlier since they are bigger, stronger and fiercer than pot hounds, and their owners invariably train them to attack. The results have been a kind of carnage that has intensified within recent times.

The shredding to death of that poor security guard last week was the latest in a series of dog attacks that should tell us that something must be done to stop this madness. No amount of money can bring comfort to Denise Rackal's now motherless children. The sheer horror of how their mother died would stay with those children for the duration of their lives. The boy who was mauled in Palmiste a few weeks ago may recover from his physical wounds, but he will remain mentally scarred for life. The same holds true for other victims of dog attacks.

What is required now is not resurrecting the ten-year-old Dangerous Dogs Act. Government—and the society—must examine the wider issue of dog ownership. I suggest we return to the colonial law that will compel all owners of dogs to register and license their animals. Further, all licensed dogs must wear their permits on their collars. Any dog caught without licence or collar should be deemed a stray. It should be immobilised by tranquillizer dart and euthanised.

Further, an owner who allows his dog, be it a poodle, pothound or pit bull, into a public place without proper restraint (muzzle, leash) and unsupervised should be charged with a criminal offence. If a dog attacks a human being in a public place, its owner must be penalised severely—as in compensation and aggravated and exemplary damages. Even if someone is attacked on the owner's premises, once he is invited or is there on legitimate business, the owner must be liable.

Some of these suggestions may seem to be unduly harsh. But we cannot allow irresponsible dog owners to deny us the simple pleasures of life. Coping with bandits and rapists is bad enough. Having to deal with dog attacks is unacceptable.

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